Pressure for profitability has led US Airways to cut safety corners, some pilots contend in a new survey.
Many of the 1,560 pilots surveyed "feel pressed to push in areas where it would be better to slow down," according to a survey summary obtained by the Observer.
US Airways officials say many of the concerns are unwarranted and that the survey is being used by pilots to gain leverage in contract negotiations.
In a letter to employees, US Airways Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom said Friday that safety is the airline's top priority. Last year, he said, was the airline's best in terms of overall safety.
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In an interview with the Observer, Isom said: "So much of this survey, I think, is about the perception of a limited few."
The airline pointed to results of a new U.S. News & World Report study that assessed the safety of the eight largest U.S. airlines. That study ranked US Airways third overall in safety - and first among the major network carriers.
The survey of US Airways pilots - conducted in October at the behest of a union that represents many of them - found that many considered safety to be one of the airline's "core values."
Overall, however, "the results of the survey indicate that the safety culture at US Airways is generally negative and in need of intervention," the summary says.
Among the concerns expressed by pilots:
The push for on-time departures may hinder safety.
An "unsatisfactory response" to reported safety issues.
Pilots felt they had little input on the airline's safety decisions.
Safety personnel were viewed as "out of touch with the risks of flight operations."
The confidential survey was conducted by University of Illinois professor Terry von Thaden, a well-respected aviation safety expert.
The summary obtained by the Observer doesn't specify the survey questions, or the results for each question.
Whether US Airways pilots have more safety concerns than those at other airlines is unclear. The summary provides no comparisons with other airlines.
Few incidents in 2010
But it's apparent that US Airways' passengers have experienced few safety problems recently. In 2010, the airline had just 24 documented incidents out of about 1.1 million flights, the U.S. News & World Report study found.
In 2010, US Airways said it posted all-time lows in navigation errors, erratic landing approaches and cases in which planes nearly collide on runways.
"On every important safety metric, we met or exceeded our goals," Isom wrote in his letter to employees.
In one of last year's rare safety mishaps, a US Airways Express regional flight overran a runway in Charleston, W.Va., due to an incorrect flap setting. The National Transportation Safety Board found the probable cause to be unprofessional behavior by crew members who were engaged in conversation that distracted them from their duties.
But many have credited the training and experience of one US Airways pilot with saving 155 lives. On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed a jet with crippled engines in the Hudson River.
Soon afterward, Sullenberger expressed concern that financial pressures might soon make it harder for the airline industry to attract experienced pilots.
US Airways pilots are paid the least of those serving the country's five major airlines.
This month, the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), the union that represents US Airways pilots, protested what it contended were deliberate efforts by the airline to stall contract talks. The airline has said it's working to reach an agreement.
In 2005, the airline emerged from bankruptcy and merged with America West Airlines. 2010 was the second most profitable year in the airline's history.
Survey results skewed?
US Airways officials contend that the survey wasn't a random sample. Less than 40 percent of the airline's 4,100 pilots participated.
Few of the airline's Phoenix-based pilots responded, and that may have skewed the results, airline officials said.
The airline's "west" pilots - mostly former America West pilots - are fighting with the longtime US Airways pilots from the East over seniority. East pilots say they believe they were shortchanged when a seniority list was created.
USAPA President Mike Cleary said the survey was statistically valid and disputed that it's being used as a negotiating tool. With management's help, he said, the survey can be used to identify weaknesses and enhance safety.
"USAPA has a singular goal - to improve the safety culture of the airline," he said.